Monday, 3 November 2014

Poppycock

As the nights draw in and the air starts to mist from our lips, so begins the Quaint British Festival season.  Growing up in a Jewish family I became used to enjoying a tasting menu of festivities in September/October in the run up to Christmas time.  A new year, a day of atoning, then finally eating candied fruit in a barely serviceable wicker hut became a yearly tradition for me as a child. This meant that often I overlooked the more mainstream festivities that came after it: the American import of Hallowe'en, a few days later a boisterous commemoration of that naughty Catholic Guy Fawkes and then, finally, Remembrance Sunday.  If you grew up in the 1980s and 1990s like I did you might think that last one doesn't really fit into the British pre-Christmas festive calendar, but then it has had a bit of makeover of late.  When I was a child it felt quiet, respectful, understated and genuinely solemn - what an act of remembrance for millions dead in one of humanity's stupidest endeavours deserves. 

This Hallowe'en weekend it seemed that every British citizen was duty-bound to do their best Walking Dead impression and splash it all over Facebook.  I'm almost amazed that we didn't have pictures of David Cameron and Ed Milliband doing selfies dressed as Jack the Pumpkin King.  But that is nothing compared to the regimented uniformity that has Britain in its grip at the start of every November: poppy-wearing.  Now this isn't going to be one of those "why I'm not going to wear a poppy" type blogs.  I understand why people choose to remember the millions whose lives were utterly wasted in warfare.  Although it would be nice one year if we could commemorate their loss by maybe scrapping Trident, shutting down all the armaments factories, stripping our military back to a basic defensive standing army and plug all the saved money into diffusing mines left on battlefields around the world and feeding the starving.  But I appreciate that might be a bit bold and tricky for politicians who don't want to stymie that profitable military-industrial complex of ours.  More importantly, I also see a worrying trend of poppy-wearing orthodoxy creeping into British society over the past decade - any newscaster or weatherman, company secretary or corporate host who's buttonhole doesn't suddenly bloom into a little patch of papery grief every 1st of November is somehow breaking an essential rule of modern etiquette.  They haven't popped on the Eurostar and used a far flung field in Flanders as a litter tray for their dogs, but they may as well have done.  Again, whilst I don't agree with this enforced wearing, grief-by-numbers, I still understand why so many people feel the need to make their show of remembering and donate to worthy charities.

Yet it really is a testament to the addictive qualities of the poppy that even in its paper and plastic form the British find it so moreish and every year they have to indulge that little bit more.  The little symbol of remembrance and respect to the fallen of World War One has now started to pop up everywhere: the traditional lapels, of course, but also car bonnets, football strips, park railings and almost any available area that can be adorned.  Today I was driving down the A243 in Surrey and saw a three mile strip of lampposts wearing giant paper poppies, as though Beaker from the Muppet Show had decided to commemorate the horrors of the Somme.  Line upon line of these sentinels of basic infrastructure now transformed into...well, certainly not anything appropriate or even necessary for commemoration.  At first as I drove down the road it felt like the least subtle peer pressure I've ever experienced.  Row after row of streetlamps zooming past my window: "remember, remember, remember", but after the second mile of this insistent parade it just became ridiculous.  How could anyone ever think that it was in any way necessary to put poppies on them? 

I can't imagine those poor lads fighting one hundred years ago would have thought much about memorials, but I think they'd appreciate an understated statue in their hometown, a moment's silence, a yearly addition to clothing that makes all the citizens stop and think not of their sacrifice, but of their tragic and stupid loss.  If someone had said - "Don't worry chaps, win or lose, life or death, you'll be remembered on a single-lane A road just by Chessington on a rusty, flashing lamp post."  If this is the path we're going down, I fear for the solemnity of Remembrance Sunday, as next year all of the manhole covers in Greater London will be painted to look like poppies and anyone who doesn't strictly obey the two minute silence will have their face painted bright red as they're paraded through the city in shame.  There's nothing worse than being at a Christmas party and having to endure forced jollity from the office fun Nazi, blowing a party whistle in your face and urging you to "cheer up Scrooge!"  Except maybe going out into the world in Britain in November and having every media outlet, every shop and now the lampposts - the object whose job it is to help me see at night, not feel shame, remorse and upset over an insane cataclysmic conflict - holler at me to remember or you're a bad person and a bad citizen.

By now you might think I'm over-reacting.  You might think that I'm being disrespectful and however someone wishes to act in remembering the fallen war dead should be given the time and space to do that.  If councils (and I presume it's councils) want to adorn street furniture with poppies, let them be.  It is showing that these men are still in our minds and bound up in the very fabric of our society.  Maybe. Possibly.  But I'll tell you what really didn't need to be wearing a poppy: the wacky waving inflatable arm man I saw outside a car dealership at the end of A243.  Whoever made that happen may as well have taken a dump on the Cenotaph.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Back on the Horse

We're ten days into the Comedy New Year (which of course starts a week after the end of the Edinburgh Fringe, on September 1st, interestingly always pretty cosy to the Jewish New Year - it's in our blood people) and most comics I know are figuring out how they can take what they did at the Edinburgh Fringe and fashion it into something that'll either improve them as an act or make the industry take notice.  Or that'll just barely pay the bills. All at the same time as beginning to plan their assault on another set of never-ending festivals, be they Leicester, Adelaide or Edinburgh 2016 (not a typo, I know one or two people that far ahead in their planning.)

This year's Fringe for me was fine.  Not a down-in-flames catastrophe or a blazing glory triumph.  I went to Scotland for 25 days, I entertained about 1,000 people and had some pretty decent shows.  It was emotionally and artistically pretty fulfilling, but not particularly ground-breaking and no one in the press or industry paid much notice. Do you know what? It's really great not to be bothered about that this year, because the one thing it has done is coalesced where I think I'm going and what I think I'm doing.  So rather than look back on the Fringe of 2014 as one of stars, reviews, bucket takes and nominations (of which only 1 in 4 is applicable to me anyway), here's a list of my favourite things to have happened in my 3 1/2 weeks up there. As much as I'd love to return from Edinburgh aloft on the shoulders of other comics every year, that's an unsustainable dream and most of them would collapse of exhaustion somewhere around Dunbar anyway. Instead I'm going to revel in the things that made me happy as a human, and leave the comedy trade fair nonsense for another year.

1. Being heckled by a 14 year old girl who came to watch my show with the words "Stop it Ben, you're ruining my childhood!" in response to one pretty gruesome Wizard of Oz gag.

2. Being hi-fived by the same girl after coming back to see my show a second time with her family and saying it was awesome.  Don't wanna humblebrag too much, but there's something about a trans-Atlantic teenager dropping the A-bomb about you that really makes the ego swell.

3. That girl not being the only return customers I had - my favourite being Henry who brought loads of friends back and then let me caricature him as an Edwardian racist for most of the show.

4. Winning Knightmare with Jay Foreman, despite over-thinking almost every part of the show.

5. Go 8-bit, especially Colt Cobana destroying Rachel Parris at Street Figher.

6. My fourth show in which I initiated the World Breast Feeding Championship - something which the ladies in the front row seemed pretty eager to participate in.

7. I had a story in the show about setting fire to the naked stone penis of a Christ on a crucifix with some friends whilst on a Jewish summer camp (sorry Christians.) I loved the story, but could never get it to work reliably apart from one day when the front two rows was packed with people who used to go to the boarding school where said phallo-pyromania occurred and they went ape-shit.  I even made up a fire and brimstone chaplain for the story and they asked how I know him so well.

8. Making one of my oldest jokes finally work properly by changing just one simple word. Jimmy Carr's right about those one-liners guys, devil's in the detail.

9. Learning that even if it's a really, really, really good joke, audiences in Scotland peppered with tourists will not get a cricket joke.

10. Eviscerating the quickest heckle (15 seconds into starting the show guys) I've ever received and coming to some sort of resolution with the guy by the end of the show.

11. Seeing Brydie Lee Kennedy every day - there is no better tech/show lieutenant out there.

12. Funz and Gamez. Twice.

13. Not losing thousands of pounds.

14. An audience member leaving halfway through the show to go on a date and screaming "fuck you all" at the room (in jest; just) when she wouldn't tell us about the date.

15. My final Laughing Horse Best of the Fest show, which ended up starring an inflatable penis dog.

16. A completely insane show half-way through the run where phantom dance music played inbetween the floors of the venue, there was a zombie invasion and my sanity gently crumpled to the floor.

17. Walking up Arthur's seat at 5:30am on my final morning, wonderfully refreshed (take a bow Brydie) to me greeted by sunrise and Rhys Matthewson rocking a Fidel Castro look with a cigar.

18. Discovering two audience members who had only been dating for 8 months already had a child and work-shopping their child-rearing arrangements with the audience.

19. Being poisoned by the dastardly underhand creeps at La Gerrigue and dying on Arthur Smith's legendary late night tour of the Royal Mile.

20. Properly letting go and free-wheeling onstage more than I ever have before.  I've always enjoyed really riffing and doing crowd-work, but a combination of my natural inclination and a great pint and pep-talk from Russell Hicks (plus seeing his inspirationally good show) meant that by the end of the Fringe I managed to improvise an entire 45 minute show.  It was the best thing I've ever done on stage (so far.)

And that's what I did on my holidays...

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Camden Collective

Since the last time I paddled around these blogging waters an awful lot has happened.  I've taken over running the excellent Good Ship Comedy, started writing Edinburgh show No.2 and decided to stand as a candidate for the Green Party in the local elections.

Enough people who read this blog will know that I was inspired to stand in opposition to Camden Council's laughably ill-judged policy to license busking in most musical borough in London, when there are already adequate laws in place to deal with nuisance busking.  The rights and wrongs of that - and what I'm doing to help reverse their decision - are for another blog.  This one is about one of the best things that I've encountered since standing.

As much as I am passionate about busking and street culture in Camden, I realise that if I'm going to be taken seriously as a candidate there are other issues I need to think about - HS2, a living wage, jobs - so last week the Green Party organised a meeting for me with Simon Pitkeathley, the Chief Executive of an amazing organisation called Camden Collective.  Meeting him and being invited around the various properties run by his initiative was one of the most cheering experiences I've had in a long time.  The mainstream news and parties in government seem to be stuck on a narrative of austerity and a lack of imagination or innovation within the country.  What Simon showed me suggests something quite different.

Anyone who lives in Camden Town will know that the centre part of it has a very divided feel.  To the right of the station you have the colourful carnival of markets, global food stalls, tourist tat and genuinely creative independent artist stalls.  To the left it is a more dreary affair: with the odd exception the strip between Camden Town station and Mornington Crescent is an identikit British high street of uniformity and drabness.  Chain stores, betting shops and, most upsettingly, empty shop fronts.  But that might be about to change.  In a previously empty property next to Pret A Manger Simon has opened up The Camden Collective - a multi-purpose shop floor where he allows small businesses to trade for two weeks at a time to find out if their idea has legs and to gain all sorts of useful experiences and contacts that can help them grow.  The inside is made almost entirely from reclaimed material and even when I visited it at 10:30am it at an atmosphere of quiet industry pervaded, amongst the cake-sellers, dress makers and pottery-moulders.

Even more excitingly, this isn't the Collective's only property.  As well as using the top floor space above 159 Camden High Street as office space for various new companies specialising in a hugely diverse range of fields, they also use a property further down the high street. Down an anonymous back lane and above a gallery is one of Camden Collective's Hubs. A place where innovators in software for Google Glasses rub shoulders with designers sat at sowing machines.  Yet again, this is a place where Simon's organisation offers space to young businessmen and women for free, in order for them to focus all their energies on their ideas, rather than worrying about high rent and rates costs that could hamstring a potentially brilliant concept at an early stage.  More importantly, this idea of shared workspace and giving people room to fail and learn from their mistakes is key.  Anyone working in creative industries will tell you that the best ideas often come when they're having a chat in the kitchen of a friend working in a completely different sphere and the Collective's hubs are designed so that these sort of happily accidental pieces of cross-pollination will occur.

As well as inspiring me, the work of the Collective uncovered a huge failing in Camden, one which I'm sure is repeated up and down the country: wasted space.  Whilst the first floor above 159 Camden High Street is devoted to spartan but practical office space, the next floor up is a chaotic wreck of damp, detritus and the remnants of a recently removed mountain of pigeon guano.  It takes little imagination to realise that with a bit of investment and imagination from a landlord this extra floor could be turned into yet more workspace for the innovators of Camden to boost the local economy.  A bit more brave investment could make it a very palatable penthouse flat.  If you walk down the High Street and look up at the second and third floors you will likely see dark space after dark space - hundreds of square foot of empty, disused, untapped space that could house people, businesses, charities, initiatives and much more else besides.  I appreciate I'm only making baby steps into the world of politics but I've always thought that a politician should look for the most obvious answers to the simplest of problems.  We need to house people and stimulate growth and Camden is sitting on a goldmine of unused properties.  It's time for landlords to be brave and let their properties' potential shine.